Should you give ‘em a shot so you can stop popping daily antihistamines? Experts sound off.
Deemed the most common and most effective immunotherapy for allergies by the American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology, allergy shots have been in use for more than 100 years. Not only can they help those with reaction allergies, such as bee stings, but they can also treat indoor and outdoor allergies and reactions to environmental triggers like dust, grass, pet dander, and mold.
“I feel there is really no treatment as effective and long-lasting as shots. Many patients find the results life-changing—the allergy symptoms resolve completely or become very mild requiring only medication here and there as needed,” says Neeta Ogden, M.D., an allergist in Edison, New Jersey and a medical advisor for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AFAA).
All symptom relief depends completely on how long you do the shots and how your doctor prepares them, “which is why it is a good idea to ask what kind of results your doctor has had,” Ogden says.
Here’s how allergy shots work, plus what to know about them if you’re considering investing time and money in the treatments.
What are Allergy Shots?
That immunotherapy we mentioned earlier is the key reason why allergy shots are so effective. A serum containing tiny amounts of your specific allergens is injected into the skin of your arm to help your body build up its defenses. As your course of shots progress, the amount of allergens per shot grows.
“Typically people start with the ‘build-up phase,’ when they receive very low doses of allergy shots once or twice each week. With each shot the dose is slowly increased to build immune system tolerance,” Ogden says.
For most patients, this build-up phase lasts three to four months. Next, you forge ahead into the maintenance dose phase, with shots every two to four weeks for three to five years, depending on your specific symptoms and response to the shots. Allergy shots often require patience, as it may take up to a year into the maintenance phase to notice any changes in your allergy symptoms, according to the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology (AAAAI).
At this point, many allergy sufferers notice relief from most—if not all—symptoms, but a relapse is possible after ending the allergy shot administration schedule, says the AAAAI.
Expect to hang out at the allergist office for about 30 minutes after your dose is administered, just to ensure you don’t have a serious reaction. Complications are rare, but anaphylactic shock can occur soon after the dose is given. A small amount of allergy shot recipients notice swelling or soreness near the injection site.
A note about finances: Most insurance covers allergy shots, but check with your plan to determine what’s covered and what’s not.
Who Should—and Shouldn’t—Try Allergy Shots?
“If you’re noticing allergy symptoms four or more days a week, consider allergy shots. These change the cellular response to allergens and are 60 to 70 percent effective,” says Sandra Gawchik, D.O., allergist and co-director of Asthma and Allergy Associates in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Patients who benefit from allergy shots typically:
Experience severe seasonal or year-round allergies and no other medications work for them anymore
Don’t want to take medication and seeks a permanent solution to allergies, rather than just symptomatic treatment with pills, sprays, and inhalers
Is allergic to a cat or dog and has one in the home or is planning to get one
Is a child 5 years or older with severe allergies and allergic asthma (they tend to respond favorably and quickly to allergy shot treatments)
Has had a systemic reaction to a stinging insect
When speaking with your allergist, be sure to discuss the risks, benefits, and alternatives, and inquire about:
What kind of results have they seen in their patients?
What are the potential complications?
Should you continue your medications while on shots?
How long can you expect to be on shots?
Do any of your medications interfere with shots?
When can you expect to start seeing the benefits?
Is it okay to have gaps due to vacation or illness?
What is their office schedule for shots?
“For allergy shots to really work you need to be able to fit them into your life schedule,” Ogden says.
Allergy Shot Alternatives
While not yet FDA-approved, many allergists have started prescribing oral allergy tablets as an alternative to allergy shots. These tablets use the same immunotherapy concept as allergy shots, but can be taken at home after taking the first dose at the allergist’s office. Gawchik suggests caution until the FDA gives this alternative a stamp of approval, but 73 percent of allergists surveyed in a new study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology are currently prescribing them (especially for patients who travel frequently or live far away from their doctor’s office).
If you’d prefer to take allergy medicines as needed, depending on the ebb and flow of the seasons, your allergist will likely place you on a treatment plan that includes a 24-hour antihistamine, a nasal spray with corticosteroids, and/or an allergy-specific eye drop. Before you pick up your prescription(s) at the pharmacy, be sure to see if you can save and get free delivery to your home with Blink Health.